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The Trap Door: I Put Coins In and Stupid Fell Out

Sword For Truth (1990)

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Sword For Truth DVD CoverYou invest yourself in a lot of media based on what you read or see beforehand. "Oh, this film will be great because my favorite actor is in it." "This game will be amazing because this studio made it." Now, if you’ve ever liked Johnny Depp, you know Dark Shadows isn’t his greatest film. Likewise, you're well aware that 343 Industries is responsible for Halo Wars. So your wishes for a film/book/game/TV show don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world. So it is with me and Sword For Truth, a samurai adventure in which nobody acts like a samurai except the ones who end up dead and there really isn’t much adventure. I need a drink.

It is the era of the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan. People vie for power and influence amid armies killing each other in the name of their lords. Too bad that, in this world, we’re stuck with the crappiest fight for a virgin princess and a sacred sword. I don’t know where to begin, so let’s just start at the beginning and go from there. Shuranosuke Sakaki is a wandering samurai who kills for money and not much else. Just as a giant white tiger attacks the Nakura clan and their princess comes under separate attack, Sakaki happens to wander by and takes it upon himself to kill the tiger. In the confusion, however, Princess Mayu disappears. So the Nakura clan hires Sakaki to get her back. After having sex with a random stranger who tried to rob him, Sakaki heads off and starts slaughtering the Seki Ninja who took Princess Mayu. Of course, finding her doesn't stop Sakaki. He continues slaughtering Seki Ninja after he gets the princess back. If it sounds like I’m shortening the hell out of the movie, that’s because I am.

Sword For Truth 1

There is no known way for me to adequately prepare you for how crap everything looks.

This film is the pits. I thought The Humanoid was bad. I thought Garaga was boring. I slept through Zeorymer. Sword For Truth features action that amounts to five frame panels and speed lines. I am not joking. The animation (and I’m insulting the medium by calling it that) for the Nakura clan charging at their enemies … is the same pan and speed lines. I couldn’t believe that someone had OK’d this as proper. It’s like they saw Fist of the North Star and said, “Yeah, we can do that, but we’ll use samurai!” When characters die, the animation shows them being cut in half … a whole lot. Plus entrails. Got to have entrails. The bloody tiger jumps in size from the length of a pagoda roof to the size of a large tank to normal—all in the same scene. All the character models are wild and varied, but, hey … wait a minute, every ninja and samurai has the same eyes. I’m not kidding you; they just copied and pasted the eyes. The only difference is when they get killed. THEN we see detail. When guns fire at the tiger, it’s a still drawing of a gun firing with the SFX of said weapon repeated over and over again. There is no known way for me to adequately prepare you for how crap everything looks. Think of all the amazing, dynamic scenes from Ninja Scroll. Now think of the scenes in Ninja Scroll where people were just walking. That’s what Sword looks like.  Sakaki goes through his trials at night. (What is with crappy anime and setting it at night!?) This means that while it might sound amazing that he kills people after we get to see him hate-screw the pickpocket (she tries to kill him mid intercourse, but he just loves her up until she cracks), it’s the murky, shadowy world of … oh god, I can’t keep talking about the animation. I might come back to it. Let’s move on.

Sword For Truth 2

The characters do things that make no sense. After finding out that he is a complete badass-supercop-samurai, the idea that Sakaki would wander into the attack on the Nakura compound by accident is bullshit. Yet every time he’s attacked or looks like he’ll be attacked, Sakaki’s always one step ahead of the game. So why does he take the job to begin with? He seems to know that he’ll be killed when he brings the Princess back, so why not let the clan get wiped out? Regarding the Nakura clan's chief retainer who hires Sakaki: if he couldn’t kill the tiger that wiped out his clan but Sakaki could, what makes the lieutenant think he’ll be able to kill Sakaki upon his return? Ugh. Princess Mayu. Ok, she's an interesting one. With our narrator gravely intoning, we watch as Mayu is pumped with opium and then loved up by a female Seki Ninja. They have sex until her mind breaks. (Really, Japan, you have to stop with this notion.) After this, Mayu agrees to help them get the Ginryu sword that belongs to the Nakura clan. Then, when she is being handed over to Sakaki in exchange for the sword, she doesn’t try to betray him at all. So what was the point of the lesbian mind break scene? Oh, I give up. Again, we go back to the chief retainer of the Nakura clan. He wants to protect the princess with his very life, but his retainers keep stopping him. Shame, because if he had thrown his life away, his men would run away and not stayed around to get ordered into battle against a furry killing machine. Okay. Oren, the pickpocket who tries to rob Sakaki and who loses her clothes in the process, is written as a quick bang and then never comes back. Sorry for being crude, but there you are. She tries to kill him because any man who would sleep with her must be cold hearted and therefore must die. What? She isn’t seen after this but, wow, what character development. There's also Dogen, leader of the Seki Ninja. He's a big man with a talent for survival who gets stabbed in the neck and a lot of other places. He likes to talk, which isn’t really a good trait for a ninja master (but there you go). There's also a government official and a professional assassin disguised as a messenger called Marouji. They engage in playful banter, until the official notices who "Marouji" really is. When they fight, the official is killed. I swear that this exchange is more skilled and even-tempered than any other scene in the film. It also has no bearing at all on the film’s “plot.” What the hell?!?

Sword For Truth 3

This wasn’t an exciting story, this was an excuse to sink someone’s tax write-off into an anime project.

The film plays out like a undercooked trial by fire for Sakaki, who fights ninja, trained killers, the Creature From The Black Lagoon (not joking), a dead Seki female ninja, and then the whole of the Nakura clan. He never breaks a sweat, never looks worried, and gives some pithy remarks on the nature of existence and how much of a bastard he is. I knew he would survive the film after seeing him for two seconds. This wasn’t an exciting story, this was an excuse to sink someone’s tax write-off into an anime project. As I watched it, the other members of my audience stared on in silence. They kept waiting for something to happen other than what they saw and had a permanent scowl on their face. I suspect I might have had one too, but I know I have one on my face right now. Nothing in the plot looked even remotely exciting. I knew the princess would try and fall in love with our amazing swordfighter, the Seki Ninja were going to be mustache twirling monologuers, and Sakaki would eventually just walk off into the distance. I wish I had beaten him to it and run for the hills.

Sword For Truth 4

I swear to Jesus and all that's holy, the animation in this defies explanation. Men are shown running somewhere and speed in indicated by a triple dissolve zoom out. Want proof? The second image in the second lot of images in the review is the proof. When people talks, their lips move but nothing else does. Well, maybe an eyebrow. When people get stabbed, blood sprays out in areas that weren't even stabbed at! The blood seems to pass behind Sakaki and in front of him while this goes on. Look above at the third last image for the evidence. The only way this kind of painful animation could be improved is if they turned it into something like Inferno Cop, which, I hasten to add, is a better use of your time. There it's done for laughs. Here in Sword, it's just a joke. People change size all the time except the lead character. So Dogen looks seven feet tall in one shot, and in another, he looks thirteen or fourteen feet tall. Don't get me started again on that human munching moggie. Let's just call it Battle Cat and be done with it.

Sword For Truth 5 

I wish I had beaten Sakaki to it and run for the hills.

I don’t have the Japanese dub on the disc I own, but the English dub is pure pain. Nobody, especially the actress playing Oren, can say Sakaki’s name properly. They keep saying Sa-khaki … as in the color. Princess Mayu is called May-Yu instead of Mai-yu or Mi-yu. Every actor sounds … like … they … ARE … reading … their … LINES … like … William … Shat-NER! and nobody tries to sound in the least bit excited. Again, the most stunning moment comes between the official and Marouji as everything slows to a crawl and offers up some amazing dialog … which doesn’t even impact the main story. I am informed that this was supposed to be a TV series and that Sword For Truth is the pilot. If that’s the case, with all the gore, decapitations, soft core sex and lesbianism, violence, and nudity, I want to see the channel that was going to pick this up. From its terrifying animation techniques to its crappy lines and its pointless ending, Sword For Truth is not getting out of the Trap Door at all and will now be killed with fire. Don’t watch this unless you genuinely hate yourself.


The nurtured natures of revenge

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Spoiler Warning: The following feature compares and contrasts various aspects of the 1998 anime and the 2014 live action film. Spoilers regarding both will be abundant.

Despite all the anime titles fans actually want to see get live action adaptations, we get KITE. Actually that does make a good deal of sense. Yasuomi Umetsu’s 1998 OVA focuses on a corrupt cop carrying out his hypocritical vigilantism via two youths he “adopts” and trains for use as his own gloved gun hands. Since the story takes place in a pretty normal city spiced up but by relatively simple pyrotechnics and gore, the budget would be much more producer-friendly than something like Cowboy Bebop. Also, the action-packed and bloody nature of KITE seems a no-brainer pitch to excitement-seeking theater-goers. However, since certain story elements in the anime were either production-, marketing-, or audience-unfriendly, the live action film does a few things differently.

An English professor I once had stated, in so many words, that using a direct quote from someone else to initiate or conclude a personal statement is an admission of one’s own failure to make a good argument. As if taking his advice, Ziman’s KITE leads off lightly by revealing one of its main characters and a little bit of the neglected downtown (Johannesburg, South Africa) setting. Only after is the audience treated to a relatively faithful reproduction of the elevator scene familiar to fans of the anime. Everything that follows thereafter is more akin to a parallel word rather than a replication, and there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why.

The anime runs approximately 45 minutes, which many would consider far too short for a theatrical presentation, and it’s not like the additional 15 minutes of explicit sex in the director’s cut add much more substance from which the live action film could draw. In the anime, the story mostly focuses on the tensions between and actions of the main characters: Sawa, Akai, and Oburi. Since the world in which these three live, kill, and die is more or less relegated to the status of a relatable backdrop, Brian Cox set about adding some color and depth to his KITE script by flushing out the city’s story and thereby defining the context of its inhabitants’ lives. Naturally, this leads to some big differences between the anime and the live-action film.

In his script, Cox originally sought to carry over the emotional tension established by the anime (without actually building any) to complement his more characterized world. This is a tough thing to do, however, especially when Cox renames Sawa’s “handler” (Akai becomes Karl Aker), completely changes the nature of Oburi’s relationship with Sawa, and turns Sawa into someone who actively forgets instead of actively remembers. A name change is one thing, but the other two decisions carry massive ramifications.

In the anime, Oburi was unaware of Sawa and vice-versa until they unwittingly carry out a job together. As they discover some semblance of normality by getting to know each other away from the office, an intimacy forms. Oburi turns out to be a recruited assassin, just like Sawa, who also considers Akai his guardian and employer. This shared, unsavory relationship lends massive weight to Sawa revealing something as personal as the meaning of her name (sand you wouldn’t hold, feather in the wind) to Oburi. After becoming closer, they end up helping each other out of binds a couple of times, promoting an air of equality. This stands in stark contrast to the movie, where Oburi, who is now a childhood friend, shadows Sawa on his own in order to come to her aid in moments where she gets in over her head. This relationship is weighted to one side and in Oburi’s favor. Sawa’s no longer capable; she’s someone who needs saving. The kicker? Sawa doesn’t reveal her name to Oburi in the live action movie; she reveals it to the emir (the villain behind the flesh trade) … for no particular reason and no effect whatsoever.

The film uses the erasure of memories for manipulation.

In the live action KITE, Sawa doesn’t remember Oburi’s childhood friendship (or her parents’ deaths), because she’s constantly taking a memory erasing drug supplied by Aker. Thus the film uses the erasure of memories for manipulation. Visually, this is represented by Sawa’s longer hair that constantly obscures the earrings featured so prominently in the anime. Unfortunately, not much is made of the earrings until more than halfway through the movie, so there’s no real emotional attachment or investment stemming from the fact that they’re made from pieces of a chandelier broken on the night of the murder of Sawa’s parents. The anime uses reminders of memory as manipulation. This is accomplished mainly through the earrings, which are filled with the blood of Sawa’s parents (one from mommy and one from daddy) and always feature prominently due to Sawa’s short hair. Aside from visual reminders, the earrings serve as the motivation that makes Sawa cross the line from innocent to assassin. (Akai was threatening to destroy the earrings he made for her if Sawa did not carry out a test execution.)

In part, this is a wonderful way of seeing how Sawa’s revenge plot is consequently linked more tightly to the mechanics of the world rather than the drama between the main characters. Since Sawa initially bears no grudge against Aker, her puppeteered actions strike against the harsh reality of the world in which she lives — namely the flesh trade (gangs abducting youths and selling them to cartels who sell them to The Emir who sells them for shipment to be “enjoyed” elsewhere). And while the selling of flesh is new to KITE, the abduction and abuse thereof is not. The anime sets up Sawa’s relationship with Akai as one of suffering via mental and physical abuse. Sawa’s never forgotten just who took her in and (for whatever reason) bides her time lying in wait for her chance to strike back. The only insight into the world around them is that Sawa’s often sent on missions to kill those who abduct/abuse children. Since this is reflective of her own situation and really only speaks only to actions between characters and not the surrounding world, the anime is pure interpersonal drama.

In the same sense, environment affects how live-action Sawa acts while on missions. Since she has to be told about Aker’s involvement in her parents’ case and thus does not initially carry her anime counterpart’s hurt and rage regarding Akai, Sawa somewhat freely lashes out at the world Aker tells her to blame for her parents’ deaths and looks upon Aker’s apartment as a safe house. In the anime, every assassination job is handed down personally by Akai or his partner, and Sawa never goes beyond carrying out those instructions. There are no clues to find, because there’s no mystery. Sawa carries out only that job (unless complications arise) and usually returns at her leisure but only to get paid; staying longer has certain … consequences. It’s a cold business made even colder by the hovering history and associated abuse.

Who the bigger abuser is, between Akai and Aker, is definitely debatable. On the anime side of things, Akai is a child rapist, a cold-blooded murderer, and a corrupt cop. He also lies to Sawa about looking for those responsible for the murder of her parents. Aker is also a corrupt cop; commands (or at least holds sway with) one of the nastiest gangs in the area, flesh-reapers called the Numbers; and gets Sawa addicted to a memory-erasing drug. Then he passive-aggressively makes Sawa feel ashamed for using, while he uses her synthetic amnesia to have her kill off the scum of the city as his vicarious vigilante. True, Akai’s obviously the bigger scumbag, but the subtlety of the portrayal of Aker’s perverted sense of justice and manipulation of Sawa is a close second.

Live-action Sawa leaves witnesses all over the place. Animated Sawa, on the other hand, hardly ever leaves a witness standing.

Regarding the other characters, there are some fun differences. Take anime Oburi: he uses explosives during missions to create distractions so he can take out his target without being noticed. Live action Oburi also uses explosives to create distractions. But since this Oburi is not an assassin, he mainly uses said distractions to help Sawa out of jams or sneak in/out of dangerous places. Speaking of, Sawa is not quite her animated self in the live action film. I mean India Eisley (live-action Sawa) looks a lot like anime, but her voice actor sure needs some coaching concerning the delivery of those witty just-before-I-shoot-you lines. There’s also the issue of her survivor ratio. Live-action Sawa leaves witnesses all over the place. This leads to suspicions about Aker, who punishes Sawa with a little lecture and guilt. Animated Sawa, on the other hand, hardly ever leaves a witness standing. If she does, there are beatings and worse in store.

As for the actual visuals in both, I’ve no complaints. The use of the lines (bars, building edges, taut wires, signs) in shots as well as the play between light and shadow are only enhanced in the live action film. And as for music, while there isn’t as much of it in the anime, the live action spices action scenes up a bit with what I’m probably wrong in calling fuzzy techno/rock. Paying homage to the anime, at least the live action film still manages to work in the inappropriately smooth sounds of some soft alto and soprano sax.

So those were all the differences and similarities, but how did they work as a film? To find that out, read Ink's full review of KITE (2014) on The Fandom Post.

Snapshot: E-Sports Bar (Nidhogg)

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I’ve never been one for so-called “e-sports,” the treatment of competitive video games like League of Legends and DOTA as a new class of sport, worthy of being placed alongside baseball, soccer, and the like. I think the whole concept is a little silly, especially since most of the game rules are far too labyrinthine to be accessible for anyone who doesn’t already play the game obsessively. Until very recently, I also couldn’t really wrap my head around the idea of watching a video game the way my dad watches baseball. It just didn’t make sense.

And yet I found myself at SF Game Night, a massive video gaming get-together organized by a San Francisco bar called the Folsom Street Foundry. With competitive DOTA and Super Smash Bros. matches playing out on giant projector screens, this was the closest thing I’d ever seen to an “e-sports bar.” It wasn’t all just passive, though — dozens of consoles and computers lined the walls, drawing crowds to play obscure SNES games and indie favorites like Towerfall Ascension. On the recommendation of Ani-Gamers’ David Estrella, I tried out Nidhogg (available on Steam or the official website), which had an enviable spot on one of the large projectors on the wall.

The game is simple: two side-scrolling fencers attempt to run toward their respective, opposing goal posts, and when one kills the other, they respawn after a short time, giving the killer a chance to gain ground. There are lots of little mechanics, like the ability to throw your sword and pick up dropped ones, but at it’s most basic level the game plays out like a demented, pixelated little game of football. After I gave it a try, I reluctantly relinquished the controller to my friend, who sat down for her first game. After she figured out the controls, she and her opponent started trading blows and moving back and forth across the field. But unlike most games of Nidhogg, this one just kept going. Every time it seemed like the yellow player would pull ahead, the orange one would ambush them and take control of the game. I and a few others started cheering my friend or her opponent on.

Before long, we had amassed a crowd of onlookers, all engrossed by this seemingly endless game of Nidhogg. People were picking sides and cheering at the top of their lungs when their chosen player scored a hit. When they would get taken down, you’d hear a dozen or so people groan in disappointment. Strangely, I found myself cheering along, screaming at my friend to come back from a shocking takedown. In a brief moment of clarity it hit me — here I was, in a bar, yelling at a TV in hopes that the yellow team would win the game. For all my disdain of e-sports, I was in the midst of something that could only be called a sport. Suddenly it wasn’t so hard to understand how a fan watching a video game could be screaming “hit him, hit him!” with the same fervor as a non-gamer might scream “get the ball!” I don’t remember who won the game, but the memory of cheering alongside an excited crowd, caught up in the energy of watching a virtual, pixel-art sport, sticks with me.

I maintain my stance on the sports-ification of MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas) like League of Legends and DOTA, but simple games like Nidhogg allow anybody to walk in and understand the basic mechanics, pick a side, and start the important part of sports fandom: enthusiastically shouting at players in the hopes that somehow it helps them win.

Snapshots is a monthly column in which one of our writers reflects upon a particular moment from an anime, manga, or video game. New entries are posted on or around the 15th of each month. To read previous entries, click here.

Review: The Tale of Princess Kaguya

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I’ve really gone and done it now. Taking on a film with this range of artistic merit in the minds of a hushed, reverent, and international audience and then writing about it … it might be out of reach from someone who has only aspired as high as I have. My claim to a modest degree of fame is writing about anime, and I won’t pretend I say anything more or less substantial than the next critic falling over themselves to hammer out a quick entry for their blog.

kaguya1Ghibli is a known quantity. Anything I can drop in that hat, as far as critical observation goes, is a handful of dust in the wind. That The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a miraculous triumph, a masterful work of the highest caliber, is all rather unsurprising. As it should be. No surprises are fine. Sometimes, you just want what’s written on the tin. Granted, some Ghibli works are better than others, so it doesn’t help much if I say it was good, fantastic, better than Ponyo, or whatever other hasty judgment I could wish to lay on it. Any terse sort of emphatic acclaim that people will lay on thick, myself not excluded, is going to fade from mind once the film begins to move.

That Princess Kaguya is a miraculous triumph, a masterful work of the highest caliber, is all rather unsurprising.

Kaguya will be best enjoyed indulgently, slowly, frame-by-frame once a video release is available. From the start, the film falls over the shoulders like a warm and richly textured blanket. It runs a lengthy two hours and change, so it’s best to get comfortable. Among Studio Ghibli’s extensive body of work, Kaguya stands apart by showing little outward resemblance to anything else they’ve done. Better for it. Words like “beautiful” and “majestic” will suffice, but when the pictures are in motion, these descriptors become trite. Ghibli's penchant for overproduced scenery bursting with detail is kept in check. The minutiae is substituted for the broad strokes, for solid colors and palatial wooden floors. A rewatch won’t reward anyone with a Totoro cameo (I hope)—the rustling bamboo, streaming fabrics, and expressive character animation are reward enough.

…the rustling bamboo, streaming fabrics, and expressive character animation are reward enough.

In spirit, Kaguya carries a lot of Ghibli’s signature strokes. Before I make the egregious mistake of writing a certain Colonel Sanders impersonator's name before Isao Takahata, let it be known that Takahata is the one and only accredited director for The Tale of Princess Kaguya. And even with a thinly-veiled environmental message here and a violent shock of animated hair there, Kaguya wishes to outrun the specter of Miyazaki and the Ghibli brand as much as the titular princess herself wishes to outrun fate. Merely wishes; Kaguya is not a radical departure from what Ghibli does, and Miyazaki is as alive as ever as of this writing. But the idea is starting to form. Kaguya doesn’t reveal a bold new direction for a studio contending with the reduced direct involvement of a person once believed to be a permanent fixture, but it does betray hints of unexpected development. “Growth” is hardly the sort of term anyone could attribute to a studio as mature as Ghibli, but given another forty years, what kind of work will they be creating? The princess joins a long line of irascible heroines dashing through harmonious wilderness, and I sincerely want to believe that this may be the end of the line. It certainly feels like the right note to end on. If Studio Ghibli doesn’t store away for good the template that’s given the world Nausicaä, Kiki, San, and so forth after this, only then do I take everything back—they haven’t changed a bit, won’t change at all, and they aren’t fit to be led by anyone amounting to more than a ghost in a white apron.

Like I said, Ghibli is not a place to look for for surprises. Perhaps that applies doubly so for Kaguya, an adaptation of an age-old story. During one scene, I had a twinkle in my eye for all of ten seconds about interpreting Kaguya through the lense of feminist critique, but I’ll leave that to a steadier hand than mine. It’s a film you can show your mum or a progressive and aggressively outspoken girl friend, but perhaps something like Howl’s Moving Castle will be a little more crowd-pleasing. Kaguya is a tale, a rare and lovingly rendered one, and perhaps like the fairy tales we have stateside, a tale inflicted on restless Japanese children before bed. I was enthralled for two-thirds of it, and the end never seems to arrive until it just does. The film doesn’t fail to rise to the necessary emotional crescendo during the final moments, but it does take it’s time to get there; few would be held to blame for being lost to sleep before then.

Kaguya's better than Spirited Away.
Discuss one Ghibli film and you end up contemplating them all. Graded comparisons are unavoidable, and I’m not above it. Kaguya falls somewhere around personal favorites Castle in the Sky and Totoro, and I refuse to clarify which stands above the other. The only statement I’d wish to be quoted on is that it’s better than Spirited Away, since that feels like the sort of en vogue thing to say right now. Kaguya is certainly not the first Ghibli film to be declared better than Spirited Away, but better than Ponyo just seems cruel these days. I’ve never even seen Ponyo.

Umineko: When They Cry

More than just a murder mystery: a mirror to humanity

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EDITOR'S NOTE — We've got yet another awesome guest feature, this time from reader Katriel Paige, who studies the intersection of folklore and pop culture. Enjoy! 

Warning: here there be talk of abuse, incest, greed, petty complaints, and very complex humans.

When a player begins Umineko: When They Cry, or starts reading the manga, they are hit with a tale of murder and witches. But the story isn't about discovering the “truth” about one particular event. This is a journey of multifaceted creatures: a journey that invites us, as readers/watchers, to look at ourselves and the rest of humanity in the mirror of the games, the manga, or the anime. After all, the series presents different ways of looking at this and asks us to draw our own conclusions. (Admittedly, the manga, due to format issues, does lead you towards a particular conclusion, but whether it is a satisfying conclusion to you is still up for you alone to decide.) The series spends a great deal of time on the family dynamics and characterizations of who we encounter. Is the truth there?

The head of the Ushiromiya family is ill, and during the annual family conference on the island of Rokkenjima, the older family members start arguing about the inheritance. The grandchildren, however, just want to enjoy themselves. Often, they only see each other for the conference, but this particular conference seems spoiled by a building atmosphere of pettiness. Then people start getting murdered. Curious sigils appear. The legend of Beatrice, the witch who gave the family head a rumored 10 tons of gold, comes into play. Whodunnit?

Certainly these murders could be explained away without resorting to “a witch did it,” right? But given that the murders take place on the island of Rokkenjima and there are 18 people on the island, explaining away how the murders happened without resorting to fantastical magic powers seems to mean blaming either a family member or a servant that has served for years. The main character, Battler Ushiromiya, wants to do neither, but he wants to figure out the truth. But as the tales spin and stories continue, it seems everyone on the island of Rokkenjima has some motive or another to kill: a mysterious inheritance, sibling rivalries, jealousies, and chains of abuse.

Let's start from a simple example of this multifaceted characterization and go from there.

101 Level

Let's take the main protagonist, Battler Ushiromiya. We see him as 18 years old and almost immediately going on about how the family head (Kinzo) named everyone in “weird” ways: spelling out their names with kanji but with Western-sounding names. Battler goes on to say that he didn't ask to be born into a rich family or anything and would rather that people leave him alone; he's still a bit upset, after all, about his mother Asumu dying and his father (Rudolf) marrying his business partner, Kyrie, seemingly so soon afterwards. Battler's on civil terms with Kyrie when the series begins, but the rift between him and his father caused Battler to miss the Ushiromiya family gatherings for about eight years — he's been away and hasn't seen his relatives for some time.

A player/reader/viewer can attribute this to the fact we're being introduced to the thought processes of an 18 year old boy born into a rich family. But even at the start, we get a sense of pettiness; he cut off ties and refused to have anything to do with the Ushiromiya family for eight years. Was the family really that bad? Was there anything else that caused this? We see him portrayed as having courage, blind luck, and a fairly good grasp of logic, but we also see him hold grudges and be completely oblivious as to how his actions, inactions, and lack of thought may affect others on Rokkenjima.

In short, we are not asked to reduce even the protagonist to one or two traits. We are not asked to view him as a saint or even a victorious hero. We see his failures, his confusion, and his anger just as clearly as we see him having fun with his cousins or trying to console a family member or help a servant.

201 Intermediate Level

We spend a bit more time with Eva Ushiromiya, daughter of Kinzo Ushiromiya and mother of George, in the third arc. She may have grated on us a bit in earlier arcs, but now we discover why she seemed so petty towards George loving a servant. As one of the Ushiromiya daughters, she underwent strict training. While she was competent, her father would lament, “Why weren't you born male?” She would never take control of the household or the family. Instead, she had to maneuver to gain any sort of control at all; since she had the fortune of giving birth to George (the first male grandson), she tries to use that in her favor.

Yes, it's tempting to see her as conniving and manipulative. But we see her being abused and belittled too. We see her frustration. We also see her affection for her husband, Hideyoshi, whom she truly does care for because there's less judgment — it's more relaxed. We are told she is knowledgeable in martial arts and that she taught George, but we also see that Eva can hold her own in a fight with words just as well as in a physical fight. We see her break down and cry if she loses Hideyoshi or George. We see her want to provide. And even if it's a twisted, destructive way of wanting to provide, it seems rooted in the idea of the household she grew up in — the traditional system of the ie (household/clan).

Now for the Advanced Level

The Ushiromiya family head is named Kinzo. When we first encounter him, it's through Battler talking about how Kinzo seems infatuated with the West and how Kinzo seems to have the only vaguely normal (i.e., Japanese) name. We quickly hear other things, like Kinzo raving about the witch Beatrice or that his sons and daughters (Krauss, Eva, Rudolf, and Rosa) seem frightened to the point of panic at the possibility of confronting him. We see him talk about how he refuses to write a will, because he condemns his family as vultures who would fight over it. We're also introduced to the idea that Kinzo liked playing chess, researched magic, and did a number of eccentric things — again, the raving about witches, but also things like sponsoring an orphanage and allowing orphans raised at said orphanage to work at the Ushiromiya family house to give them skills and funds they could use to build their own lives afterwards.

Players/readers/watchers also hear how Kinzo not only kept a mistress — an idea brought up relatively early — but also managed to orchestrate buying out the island of Rokkenjima, and how he was obsessed with death during World War II. Then we hear about when he fell in love with his mistress. He was obsessed with her, going so far as to refuse to acknowledge her death, such that he eventually confined, raped, and impregnated said mistress' child. Yet we also see — shortly after discovering all these things — that he knows he did horrible deeds; wants some measure of forgiveness from this child if at all possible (it's implied this is why he sponsored the orphanage in the first place); and, in terms of his family, sincerely enjoyed giving them presents and holding a little party for Halloween when they came for the family conference in October. We are invited to see all of these actions and traits as Kinzo; he may have done monstrous horrible things, and you might hate him for those things, but in the end, he's not a monster or a wizard or anything.

This journey through the characters, and through the idea of “truth,” ends with the character of Ange, Battler's younger sister. She wants to find out the truth of what happened. Before she can do this, however, she has to find out more about the people that were there and “meet them” on their level with the resources available to her. Only then can she come to any satisfying conclusion for herself. Ange — and vicariously the readers/players/watchers, a.k.a. we ourselves — is not asked to take one side or another, to hold up any characters as examples of heroism or cowardice. We are asked to view the characters as human, with all that complexity and horror and hope that might entail, and see their journeys up until their arrival on Rokkenjima for that fateful family conference in order to figure out what makes most sense given what we have seen.